Driverless Trucks and How They Could Work on Our Highways

A self-driving car is one thing, how about a self-driving (or “driverless”) truck?  Long lines of trucks driving in platoons (groups driving at the same speed), heading down the highway.

The advantages of driverless trucks are many.  No sleepy drivers.  No crazy drivers.  A massive increase in fleet fuel economy.  Massive increases in safety as well.  And more.

Downsides?  The fear of putting truck drivers of out of work and the political wrangling around it.  New challenges in getting on the exit ramp.  Safety concerns. Fewer colorful stories and songs about life on the open road.  And more.

In 2017, the UK will begin testing autonomous trucks on the M6 in Cumbria.  If you’re not familiar with Cumbria, think North Dakota, Montana, Canada’s Yukon or Northwest Territories.  Lots of highway with little traffic and few stops. As David Bizley, Chief Engineer at RAC, the UK equivalent to the American Automotive Association, said:

“One of the main questions is really whether lorry platoons are appropriate for our motorway network, which is why the choice of the M6 in Cumbria for the trials is a good one because the junctions are few and far between and the traffic density is low compared with most stretches of motorway. So while this is a potentially welcome extension to the driverless technology we are seeing trialled in cars, it’s not clear yet whether it is something that would work in practice on the UK’s motorway network.”

 

This is pragmatic thinking, and the video above showcases some of the issues and innovations platoon driving technology brings to bear. At the end of the day, driverless trucks may or may not work in all areas of the country.  But it needs to be tested to really determine how truck platooning could work.

The US is moving forward with driverless trucks as well.  The US Army starts testing autonomous semis in 2016.  Last year, Daimler tested driverless trucks in Nevada desert.  They’ve also been tested on the Autobahn.

Let’s take a closer look at the UK’s truck platooning program, courtesy of AllGreen PR.  It’s an excerpt from their great piece in Truck Locator.co.uk.  Issues and opportunities with implementation over there are very similar to what any country will face.  Enjoy and learn.

 

Platooning

Platooning is nothing new – research into these systems started back in 2009 with EU funding – with the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project. The project tested combinations of cars, coaches and trucks and resulted in some significant fuel savings across the board between ten and twenty percent.

The first public road test took place back in 2012 in Spain involving three cars and a truck with a gap of 18 feet between each vehicle at a speed of 85 km/h, covering some 200 kilometres.

Since this time, platooning has been trialled in Sweden, Germany and in the United States. Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett commented: “At the outset, it is important to note that these trucks will not be ‘driverless’. Each cab will be manned. As far as we are concerned, this is an issue where the devil lies in the detail.”

 

Fuel Saving not Driver Saving

There has been plenty of scaremongering in the press that this will be the end of the long-distance lorry driver as we know it. The platooning system very much needs the driver to be in control, he needs to be able to join and exit the system to continue the journey and deliver the load. Platooning saves Fuel

The most likely outcome of the test is a significant improvement in fuel consumption or not only vehicles following in the platoon, but also of the lead vehicle. Additionally, traffic flow should be smoother when sufficient numbers of vehicles are included.

Tests by Scania have shown that convoy driving using truck “platoons” can reduce fuel consumption by up to 12%. This could mean a fuel saving per vehicle of some 4,000 litres annually. This would be able to power a typical family car some 35,000 miles.

“On the test track we’ve driven with a distance of about 10 metres between the vehicles, and we were able to achieve a 12% fuel saving for the trailing vehicle,” says Magnus Adolfson, Scania’s Manager for Intelligent Transport Systems. “If you want to get as close as a couple of metres, then you need several automatic systems that also take control of the steering from the driver during the time that the vehicle is in the truck platoon. That’s also something we’re focusing our research on.”

 

How Does it Work?

The platooning system uses a combination of existing technologies that have been tweaked to make the system as safe and effective as possible.

 

Sophisticated Cruise Control
Effectively, the system uses an improved ‘advanced adaptive cruise control’ (ACC), a system that we have enjoyed using on cars for many years now. Rather than setting a desired speed, the driver selects a desired distance from the vehicle in front which is maintained through the use of radar and cameras.

 

Driver Aids – Autonomous Braking
Legislation that came into force as recently as November 2015 compels all new trucks over 8 tonnes GVW to be fitted with ‘Autonomous Emergency Braking’ systems – AEB for short. This means that the driver is taken out of the equation if an accident is likely.



These systems have been fitted to trucks (as an option) for a number of years. They have clearly proven themselves so effective in stopping the vehicle that they have made their way into legislation.

So we have been able to automatically keep our distance from the moving truck in front and automatically come to an emergency stop for some years. So what’s new?

 

Steering by Wire
Truck steering systems have become more sophisticated with steering columns becoming a thing of the past with ‘drive by wire’ control. These systems have been wonderfully demonstrated by Volvo Trucks in a series of YouTube videos – one involving a hamster steering a truck by running around a wheel attached to the steering wheel and the second showing a small girl controlling a 32 tonne truck using a remote controller.



 

Making it All Work

Even if platooning can be made to work technically – safely and reliably – it is of no use unless a system is developed to ‘book a vehicle’ into the convoy. Simply stumbling across a platoon and tagging along cannot be an option. RHA’s Richard Burnett agrees, “In addition to the concerns of the motorist, is platooning practical for the haulier? Does it make operational sense?” The truck makers are already looking at this. To develop a system to coordinate platoons, Sweden’s Scania is focusing on its COMPANION joint research project with KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The next stage of development involves coordinating truck convoys, thereby making the whole logistics system more efficient. Scania’s researchers are designing a system that allows transport managers to input the routes their vehicles will take, with the system then finding joint routes with other operators who can ‘platoon up’.

An additional issue is related to the length of these platoons and how it might affect other road users. The maximum length of a tractor unit and trailer combination is currently 16.5 metres in the UK. Add an extra ten metre gap between a platoon of ten vehicles and you get something that is more than a quarter of a kilometre long. Would the average UK motorist be able to contend with this moving obstruction when turning off a motorway junction? We have all seen most drivers leaving it to the last minute to turn off after accelerating past slower traffic. This may therefore lead to platooning in the centre lane or lane three. Not a popular alternative with car drivers.

 

 

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